HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Newsonomics: The Financial Times triples its profits and swaps champagne flutes for martini glasses
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 14, 2011, 1 p.m.

Want to correct misinformation? Try doing it with a graphic

A new study finds that a correction that does its work in visual form is more likely to be accepted.

At this point, we pretty much take for granted the power of graphics to help journalists explain — stories, concepts, context. What we pay less attention to is graphics’ power to persuade. But that could (and, maybe, should) be changing. A new paper (pdf) on motivated reasoning and political misperception — the latest from political science professors Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth, and Jason Reifler, of Georgia State — suggests that graphics can also provide a powerful, and perhaps essential, way of counteracting misinformation. In the political world, in particular — but presumably in the broader sphere, as well.

The paper (full title: “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions”) shares findings from three experiments that asked participants to assess sets of controversial data: on the U.S. troop-level surge in Iraq in 2007, the jobs market under the Obama administration, and global temperature change. From those, it draws two big conclusions about the psychology of misinformation: First, that external affirmations of “self-worth” — essentially, the buttressing of people’s sense of their own values and worldviews — can actually reduce misperceptions among the people who are most likely to resist information that runs counter to their already-held beliefs; and, second, that graphical presentation of corrections (and of controversial information in general) can be more powerful than their textual counterparts in terms of convincing people to amend their misperceptions.

Though the first finding is, wow, fascinating — “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, global warming is scientific fact” — it’s the second that holds the most obvious and immediate implications for journalism. We know it intuitively: Graphics, with their stark, efficient presentation of ostensibly authorless information, are powerful vehicles of facts. And they can be powerful cleansers to the misunderstandings that pollute the (political) atmosphere. Words invite interpretation; graphics invite consumption. Graphics’ frankness — and, with it, their raw persuasive power — suggest, as Nyhan and Reifler put it, “the exciting possibility that graphical corrections can reduce misperceptions more effectively than text.”

For journalism, that should also suggest that infographics deserve even more prominent placement in news narratives — particularly when those narratives involve information that is, for whatever reason, controversial. Here’s a way — finally, maybe! — to combat the persistent falsehoods that slant, ever so slightly, the entire direction of our discourse, political and otherwise. The stubbornness of misperception is, alas, an evergreen story, and one that’s particularly frustrating to journalists, who would prefer to take for granted that the truths they tell will be believed. It’s nice to think that something as relatively simple a bar graph or a pie chart — or, for that matter, something as relatively complex as a detailed interactive graphic — could help turn the tide back toward truth.

While the paper’s findings overall, Nyhan and Reifer write, still “underscore the challenges faced by those who hope to reduce misperceptions among the public,” their glass-half-full conclusion — “that journalists writing stories about changes or trends in a measurable quantity where misperceptions are likely should consider including graphs in their stories” — is good news. And it suggests the good that can come if journalists think about infographics less as ancillary explainers, and more as narrative devices that are integral to stories’ impact.

Image by Keith Ramsey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 14, 2011, 1 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Newsonomics: The Financial Times triples its profits and swaps champagne flutes for martini glasses
The FT is a leader in crossing over from print — digital subscribers now make up 70 percent of its paying audience, a number that keeps growing.
A farewell to #content: Optimism, worries, and a belief in great work
A few thoughts on the state of media (and meta-media) from our departing staff writer.
On convening a community: An excerpt from Jake Batsell’s new book on engaged journalism
“An engaged journalist’s role in the 21st century is not only to inform but to bring readers directly into the conversation.”
What to read next
750
tweets
Snapchat stories: Here’s how 6 news orgs are thinking about the chat app
From live events to behind-the-scenes tours, The Huffington Post, Fusion, Mashable, NPR, Philly.com, and The Verge tell us how they’re approaching Snapchat.
611New rules governing drone journalism are on the way — and there’s reason to be optimistic
They’re more permissive than some had expected: “Under this regulatory framework, every newsroom will have drones and people certified to fly them. They’ll just be part of the equipment.”
483Internet birthed the radio star: Local newspapers are hoping online radio can be a growth area
Despite slow audience and revenue growth, a handful of newspapers are optimistic about the future of Internet radio.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Slate
Patch
Las Vegas Sun
The Huffington Post
Gannett
San Diego News Network
BuzzFeed
The Washington Post
Vox Media
News Corp
Ars Technica
Charlottesville Tomorrow